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The Deliciousness of Autumn in Italy

Nella Nencini

In September, the summer heat finally lets up and believe it or not, I actually look forward to the crisp Autumn days that come sometime between mid-September and late-October. Each year, I marvel that I am actually sated of fresh tomatoes and grilled scampi. I get excited about porcini mushrooms and return to drinking structured red wine without fearing that it will taste like vin brule. As a Californian, I am easily impressed by the changing leaves, which turn vineyards planted on mountain slopes into tricolor landscapes of green, red and then finally, yellow. The light becomes transparent and infuses me with new vigor after the lazy hazy summer. Hunters shoot their guns at sparrows. Farmers slow traffic as they cart their grapes to wineries. Each Fall, as the light changes and the evenings cool, I begin anticipating my favorite culinary season in Italy, a season whose distractions of truffles, porcini mushrooms, chestnuts and wine trick me into Winter every time.

Below you will find some possibilities for enjoying Italy's autumnal distractions, even on a simple weekend getaway. Some of my favorite Fall recipes follow.

Piedmont: Culinary Heaven

It happens every year. When I visit Piedmont (Piemonte in Italian) in October and November, I am so determined to satisfy my love of truffles - white truffles, Piedmontese white truffles - that I hardly order anything else. Tagliolini tossed lightly with butter and shaved (hopefully heavily) with fresh white truffles. This is what I order at each of my favorite restaurants ... over and over again.

Although other areas of Italy have truffles and some are quite good, the white truffles of Piedmont are the definitive Italian truffles. In addition to the expensive subterranean funghi, however, Piedmont boasts what many feel is some of the best food in the country. Although this statement is predictably countered by many Lombards, Sicilians and Tuscans (among others), the claim that Piedmont has one of Italy's most sophisticated culinary traditions is not. Truffles or not, the restaurants in the region will dazzle you with Piedmontese fondue, bagna cauda, with veal medalions in Barbaresco sauce, with a rich tradition of cheese production and even with the best hazelnuts one can find - but don't miss the truffles.

Recommended time for visit: Middle of October to middle of November.

On the Path of Porcini in Tuscany

There is no better way to spend a relaxing autumnal weekend in Tuscany than by driving through the countryside to a restaurant specializing in porcini mushrooms. More specifically, fresh porcini from Italy, for these special wild mushrooms, although still not cultivated successfully, can be found (imported) almost year round nowadays, such is their fame and attraction. During the Fall, with luck, the funghi porcini are predominantly local, or "nostrali" in Tuscany.

Rainfall, temperature and exposure of the sun are the main factors influencing the growth of mushrooms in the forests, so the length and quality of porcini season varies each year. The restaurants that have the best connections for high-quality porcini are able to offer more caps than stems and large fresh caps at that, even if the weather did not cooperate as hoped. This can mean the difference between Italian and imported porcini - and alas, even between fresh and frozen porcini.

The places I go for porcini offer a range of wonderful things to try. In general, they are family-owned trattorias, often located in the chestnut forests that produce the mushrooms themselves. (Beware of going porcini hunting in these areas, however, for the only thing you may find is a jealous mushroom hunter eager to protect his secret stash!)

Recommended time for trip: October and November.

Trggelen in Alto Adige: Suser, speck and chestnuts

The South Tyrol, known in Italian as Alto Adige and in German as Sdtirol, has a wonderful Fall tradition called Trggelen to which I was introduced when I lived in the wine production area just south of Bolzano. Each Fall, I look forward to returning to this breathtakingly beautiful and historically fascinating region of Italy to take part in a tradition that originated over 1000 years ago.

The name Trggelen derives from the Italian torchio meaning wine-press and the tradition celebrates the Autumn grape harvest as well as other culinary specialties from South Tyrol, such as speck, chestnuts, apples and cheese. Most of my favorite Trggelen spots boast spectacular views of the Alps and pre-Alps (the mountains rising like skyscrapers out of the river valleys and boldly announcing the beginning of the Dolomites). At one spot, a short hike brings me to a maso, the name of hereditary farms in this region. I sit on an outdoor terrace and sip Suser (new wine only partially fermented) with a wooden cutting board before me presenting speck (seasoned and lightly smoked prosciutto) and a selection of local cheeses served with a basket of local breads. (Be forewarned: Grau Kse or grey cheese is so strong and pungent that it is normally dressed with salt, pepper, onions and olive oil - still an acquired taste - to say the least!) Following this, I have some of the chestnuts recently gathered and served roasted or boiled (this last version makes a particularly good match with red wine) and finally some strudel made with the apples recently picked from trees lining the valley below.

Usually, it is possible to park and walk a bit to the Trggelen spots. Needless to say, in such an invigorating scenario and with all that fresh air, the wine flows and the walk back (even if it is just to the parked car) is welcome.

Recommended time for trip: October.

Recipes: A Menu Celebrating the Italian Autumn

Insalata di porcini freschi

Fresh Porcini salad

Directions: Thinly slice the fresh porcini mushrooms and arrange on a plate. Shave fresh Parmigiano Reggiano on the mushrooms. Use the best quality of Parmigiano Reggiano you can find and don't put a heavy layer on, just enough to lightly cover the mushrooms. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle rather abundantly with the best extra virgin olive oil you can find. The flavors should be tasted in this order of dominance: first the porcini, then the olive oil, then the parmigiano. Serve.

Nido di quaglia al tartufo bianco

Quail nest of tagliolini with white truffles

Directions: It is best to use fresh tagliolini. Be careful to cook them only until they are "al dente", meaning there is still a definite bite to the pasta. Fresh pasta is very easy to overcook so taste the pasta every two minutes or so to be safe. Strain the pasta and immediately stir in enough butter to lightly coat the pasta (without creating a butter sauce). Arrange the tagliolini in individual pasta bowls in such a manner as to create a "nest", leaving a center area that is slightly depressed. In the center of the nest place a raw quail egg yolk - only the yolk, not the white. (Be sure to buy the eggs from a trusted grocer.) Use a truffle shaver to shave the fresh white truffle (conserved until now in a jar of dry rice if not purchased that day) over the pasta. Shave away, trying to put an equal amount on each plate and not an obviously large amount on your own. Serve.

Filetto di Chianina con cappello di fungo porcino e funghi fritti

Fillet of Chianina beef with porcini mushroom cap and fried porcini mushrooms

Directions: In Italy, one is not asked how one wants their meat cooked; it is rare or it constitutes a second butchering of the meat - a sacrilege and a tragedy. Do your best to grill the meat on a BBQ or indoor grill just enough so that you do not loose the juice; it should remain very, very pink.

Choose large porcini caps that are as white underneath as possible. (Yellow undersides indicate age and are "less fresh" than white undersides. But do not discard them if they are yellow, only do so if they have turned brown. Use the yellow ones for the sauces). Make long crossways incisions in the porcini caps without cutting through them and place a few very small slices of garlic in each. Do not overwhelm the wild forest flavor of the porcini with garlic. Place part of a twig of "nepitella" - if you can find it - in one of the incisions in the cap. Nepitella is calamint. It grows wild all over Tuscany and in some parts of the US. Grill both sides of the cap until the mushroom is easily pierced with a fork.

Fry sliced porcini caps and stems in a deep fryer or in a skillet. The slices can be lightly floured with or without egg mixed into the batter. The lighter the batter and the hotter the oil, the crispier and less heavy tasting the fried porcini.

Place the cap on top of the fillet and the fried porcini slices around it and serve.

Torta di Mele

Tuscan Apple Pie

Directions: Soak about three handfuls of raisins in water. Mix 3 eggs with 200 grams of sugar and slowly add 100 grams of melted butter 150 grams of flour, 1 teaspoon of vanilla powder, 15 grams of baker's yeast, half a cup of milk and grated lemon rind. Stirring in each ingredient slowly and completely. Finally, stir in three handfuls of pine nuts and the pre-soaked raisins. Add a pinch of salt.

Butter and flour a baking dish, at least 25 centimeters in diameter. Pour the mixture into it and distribute evenly. Remove peel and core of 4 large apples. I like using Stayman Red from Alto Adige. Cut them into slices and lay them on the mixture evenly dispersed.

Cook in a medium hot oven for an hour. Let cool, sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired.

Nella Nencini has now begun Africa with Nella. As a professional safari guide she offers personalised travel planning and private guiding in her home of Kenya and throughout East Africa. www.africawithnella.com

© Copyright Nella Nencini, 2002

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